It's a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Oakland and Marco Polo Santiago, band leader of La Misa Negra, is sprinting across the street to meet me. He's just returning from a mini-vacation to Los Angeles, where he grew up. He's wearing a band tee featuring a large black-and-white photo of La Misa Negra's percussionist smoking a bong. It's a selfie, he explains, sent to him when he was late picking her up for a gig one morning.
"It was just hysterical," Marco remembers, laughing. "Right when she sent it to me, I knew: I'm going to put this on a tee shirt and give it to her for her birthday." He did just that, and the response has been so positive, it's now an official piece of band merch.
The story of how the Oakland-based cumbia band with a sound that blends 1950s and 60s Latin dance music with high-energy, Afro-Colombian dance music, all powered by horn and accordion-driven riffs, began five years ago, is similar: Marco had a vision and he ran with it. "The cumbia band that I wanted to see didn't exist," he says. "So I was like: maybe I'll start my own." He did, and now La Misa Negra plays to packed festival crowds and has its sights on a soon-to-be-recorded second album.
How would you describe La Misa Negra to someone who hasn't heard of the band, and what sets it apart from other cumbia bands?
We play high-energy Afro-Colombian dance music. It's cumbia music on crack. We do our best to stay true to the golden era of the music, which was from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. It was a big-band sound. The music has changed so much since then. I'm trying to pick up where those bands left off, while putting our own twist on it.
La Misa Negra is an eight-piece band now. Besides you on guitar and accordion, you have a saxophone player, horns player, clarinet player and upright bass player, plus two percussionists and a singer. How did you build it to that size?
When I started the band, I just put an ad on Craigslist and explained what I was going for. There have been people coming and going since then; slowly we built the lineup we have now. For the first rehearsal, the band already had a name and I already had a concrete idea of what I wanted to do on-stage. I knew it had to be high-energy. I knew the sound. I just needed the people.
How did the band's first show go?
Our first show was in San Francisco opening for La Sonora Dinamita, one of the most-known cumbia bands. The following day we played the Fruitvale Dia de los Muertos festival; there were a few hundred people there.
Most musicians are used to spending a lot of time writing original material, rehearsing, and being very prepared before playing even one gig. I didn't want to do that, [because] I wasn't sure people were going to get what we do. In the end, people really gravitated towards it and really got that we sounded different. It was something they were familiar with but at the same time, it was completely new.
What's been your favorite show so far?
We played BottleRock in May and that was just amazing. We were the second band on our stage—the stage that Buddy Guy headlined that day. We went on at like one and weren't sure whether anyone was even going to be there. But it was packed, and the crowd was nuts.
Plus, Fantastic Negrito came on right after us. We're friends with those guys, so that was cool. And we got to go see Stevie Wonder and Lenny Kravitz later on. That was amazing. That was our first major festival. Then we did Stern Grove in July. Also amazing.
Where's your favorite place in the Bay to see music as a fan?
I love the Fillmore. I've seen Metallica there twice. I like it for the history, with Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and everyone else who's played there, but it's also a really good size. The Fillmore is just big enough to have stadium bands play, but it's also small enough that you can be in the back and still feel like you're seeing everything.
What's your favorite place in the Bay to go in your spare time?
I ride my bike a lot on the Iron Horse Trail in Walnut Creek. And I like going to parks; that's where I get a lot of writing done. Any outdoor place with the least number of people is the ideal spot.
What is something most people don't know about La Misa Negra?
Most of us are not from the Bay Area! Only Elena (our percussionist) and Justin (our sax player) are San Francisco natives. Our drummer is from Wisconsin. Our clarinet player is from Vermont. And Diana (our singer) is from Colombia. She's the real deal. That's why we wanted her. We didn't just want someone to sing in Spanish; we wanted someone to have the right accent, tone, knowledge of slang, way of saying things. I wanted the music to be as authentic as possible. // Next local show: Regency Ballroom, Oct. 31, 8pm, 1300 Van Ness Ave. (TenderNob), theregencyballroom.com